Thursday, August 15, 2013

When do we get to be the stars of our own stories?

I gave a similar talk to this at a Bluestocking event this week and have decided to write it up.

In my line of work it is not an uncommon occurrence to be sent invites or advertising stuff to various conferences and events centred around Indigenous knowledge and politics.  I try to get to what I can when it is relevant but there are a lot of events and it can be tough.

Recently though, I received information regarding a conference that attracted my attention for all the wrong reasons. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big supporter of men and women having separate spaces to share information and organise. As Indigenous people, I think we have always seen the value in this and therefore I was happy to see a conference that offered that option. So I checked out the information to see how these streams were being framed. Firstly, this is a slightly edited version of the information for the men's stream:

"This conference presents a unique opportunity for men to participate in an event which is devoted to the sharing of information and the empowering of men.  In our everyday working environment, the day to day stress of our positions tends to limit us in expanding our knowledge and network whether you work at a community level or at government level, the opportunity to network and gain contacts outside your local region tends to be limited."

All good. Next I read the information for the women's stream: 

"This conference presents a unique opportunity for women to participate in an event which is devoted to the sharing of information and the empowering of women.  In today’s society, Indigenous women are developing careers while maintaining a home and family life. Indigenous women are empowered to determine their future nowadays. It is said that women can multitasking(sic) far more easily than men. However when it comes to equal rights for Indigenous issues, women tend to walk together with Indigenous men to fight against social injustice for indigenous people. Indigenous women play vital roles on community boards from grassroots level through to national levels"

I was a fair bit gobsmacked. Whilst the men were referred to as autonomous human beings engaged in their career, women were defined by their relationship to the home, to the family and to men (underlined for emphasis).  To rub some further salt into the wound, men "work" whereas women play "vital roles". Men have "positions" whereas women are "developing careers". And then there was the incredibly biological deterministic comment about women's alleged ability to multi-task. I may have given this a pass (okay, probably not) if this were just a small, grass-roots event but it's not. It's a large-scale conference for health workers in a number of different fields.

How on earth is seeing black women in this way even remotely empowering for us? Further: why, with a description like that, would I want to sign on up for this event? I've been relegated to the roles of "home maintainer", "family maintainer" and "man supporter" when my actual life includes none of this. Nor does it for a bunch of other black women I know. What's more, even if my life did involve all of those roles, do I not have the right to be defined as an individual and not as someone who exists to support everyone else? Do I also not have the right to have my qualifications, contributions, achievements and experiences seen as valid and equal and not just as a work-in-progress?

It seems to come back to an old adage I have been hit with over the years. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard "our women are the backbones of our community". People say it reverentially as if it is a compliment regarding the role black women play in our society. The problem is, I've never actually wanted to be a "backbone". I've never wanted to be the supporting part that is in the background providing structure and strength and holding everything else together. If I could pick a body part to be, it would be the brain or the entire nervous system; the bits that create thought and action. And I should have the right to be that. Additionally, some women may actually want to be a backbone and may revel in their ability to provide strength and support to those around them. They should, however, be allowed to choose this path and not have it thrust upon them by social expectation. And they should also be seen as people in their own right rather than by the role they play.

The truth of the matter is that our women have been accessing tertiary education at a rate of nearly twice that of our men and have been for quite a while. We work in the higher education sector again at a rate twice that of our men. We tend to have more qualifications and we also apparently earn more than non-Indigenous women when we graduate from University. We're not "empowered to determine (our) future nowadays"; we've been setting the pace! These achievements by our women need more recognition in their own right because they are amazing.

It does make me wonder when black women will get to be the stars of our own stories. Whether it's stuff like this that comes from within our community or whether it's a DVD cover where we've been relegated to the tinted background because a white male being in a film is considered a greater achievement even when the story is actually a true one about us. We seem to be relegated all the time by both white and black patriarchy and it diminishes us, our contributions and our achievements. If we're continually relegated no matter what we do then what is the point of us striving for more? 

I think it is completely probable that the content writers for this conference were trying to be inclusive and respectful, and I do believe that they were trying to highlight that there are additional difficulties faced at times. By defining black women in such ways though that explicitly tie their roles to others when men are not defined like this, they have instead managed to be reductive and offensive. Aboriginal women are diverse people and we deserve recognition on our own merits.


  1. It's almost like you expect us to have agency and control of our own destinies, Celeste. Shame on you! Oh, wait, no, that's right, that's what we've been working for for decades, no - centuries, no- millennia!

    Worse still, I think this might have been a health conference?

    1. Indeed it was, Sandy! That fact made this even more perplexing to me.

  2. I note there are also additional topics for discussion in the men's group: "Careers, Our Family and Men, The Empowering of Men with our Culture."

    I find this really strange & insulting for both men and women.

    So, women don't want to talk about Careers?

    And men are somehow deficit to women in "Our Family" and "Empowering" through Culture...and therefore men need a special focus on this??

    Maybe I'm reading too much into this! Great piece by the way :)

    1. I read exactly the same into it, if that helps. Quite extraordinary, hey? And this is for a bunch of highly trained and skilled workers. The mind boggles...

  3. Great piece Celeste. I really like your reference to the white male dominant hollywood actor as a way of linking why society is often compelled to make such ridiculous assumptions.
    Lately I've been reading and thinking a lot about how we spend so much time trying to lobby governments and change peoples attitudes while not actually living out what we're wanting to achieve. For example, the idea of self-determination and sovereignty I think are perfect examples of how we need to just do that - be self determinate and see ourselves as sovereign individuals. That way governments and the European dominate consciousness will just catch up as opposed to us feeling like we need to demand it or ask for it. That said, I still see the value of hitting the streets and making your voice heard as a way of educating people which I think is precisely what this blog does.


  4. Wonderful piece, thank you for sharing. From one Aboriginal woman to another :) Cheers.

  5. Love this piece and yup, did not know Indigenous women outstrip men and Non- Indigenous women in academic performance and post grad pay rates. That little snippet will be filed